An independent review has found no evidence that NatWest Group’s private bank Coutts has been closing customer accounts due to their political views, but found it may have breached rules by failing to give due notice or explain why they were being shut.
A report compiled by external lawyers, hired by NatWest after a dispute with the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, said their team “found no evidence of discrimination in any of the exit cases, including no evidence of a customer’s account being escalated for exit, or ultimately being exited, due to their political views or party-political affiliations, or any other protected characteristic”.
However, it said Coutts may have breached City regulations by failing to give 60 days’ notice before closing accounts, and by failing to tell clients why they were being ousted.
The law firm Travers Smith also urged the lender to create more formal rules and procedures for cases where accounts are closed for reasons other than financial crime. That includes commercial decisions, where maintaining an account is actually loss-making for the lender.
The report is the last expected from the Travers Smith review. The review was launched in July after Farage started a campaign against Coutts – which caters to the very wealthy – for threatening to close his accounts without explanation. The scandal snowballed after Farage obtained internal documents showing that Coutts was concerned about his alleged “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views”.
The report released on Friday said lawyers did identify two cases where NatWest closed the accounts of customers who it believed were unaligned with its “purpose” – which includes promoting diversity and addressing the climate crisis. However, Travers Smith said there were other factors at play in those cases, including the fact that they were too costly to manage, or posed a reputational risk for the bank, and both were ultimately escalated to the bank’s reputational risk committee.
An earlier phase of the Travers Smith review, released in early November, already determined that Coutts had a “contractual right” to shut Farage’s accounts, and said in November that it had ultimately done so because the bank was losing money by keeping him as a client.
It also said NatWest Group’s ex-chief executive Alison Rose – who was forced to resign in July – had made an “an honest mistake” by discussing Farage’s accounts with a BBC journalist and that she mistakenly believed his relationship with the bank was already publicly known. NatWest ultimately decided to scrap nearly £7.6m in payouts to Rose over the scandal.
Farage lambasted the final report, claiming it did not reflect the views of the bank that were detailed in the documents he obtained earlier this year. “The report does however admit that there are serious deficiencies in the way NatWest close bank accounts in such a subjective fashion. The NatWest group now need to take a cold, hard look at their own procedures,” he said.
Coutts’ new chief executive, Mohammad Syed, who was installed after Peter Flavel was sacked in July, said the bank “recognised the need to improve our customer account closure processes and those improvements are already well under way”.
“It is clear there are lessons to be learned … The experience of some of our customers fell short of what they should expect, and we apologise to them.”
Robert Johnson is a UK-based business writer specializing in finance and entrepreneurship. With an eye for market trends and a keen interest in the corporate world, he offers readers valuable insights into business developments.